I was thrilled to be invited and looked forward to presenting information about the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. But, I’ll admit to quite a few uncertainties as I pulled up to the hotel for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce 2018 Planning Retreat & Leadership Conference.
I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and walked through the lively lobby full of laughter and conversation to the registration table where I received a very warm welcome and my conference badge. As I turned from the table wearing my badge, several people greeted me by name and introduced themselves. To my surprise, not one person thrust a business card at me. A friendly gentleman pointed out the coffee and breakfast buffet, and as I entered the conference room, a pair of women said hello and invited me to sit at their table. Names were exchanged, and still, no one made a sales pitch. I shared that this was my first time attending this event and immediately received words of welcome and genuine smiles. One woman said to me, “Oh, I remember my first time. I didn’t realize there were assigned seats at the front of the room for everyone, and I felt a bit awkward making my way to my seat after everything had started. Make sure you look for your seat.” I thanked her for the “insider tip,” found my seat, and enjoyed meeting other people who were seated around me.
Wow, this wasn’t at all what I had imagined. This seemed more like a gathering of friends than a conference. As Jacki Dezelski, president and CEO of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, and Bill Poulton, Chamber Chairman-Elect of Tropicana Products welcomed everyone, there was good-natured ribbing and a real spirit of inclusion. Barry Banther facilitated an ice-breaker activity that matched first-time attendees with more experienced attendees asking them to share their insights and biggest takeaways from previous retreats. Both of the experienced attendees in my group declared the relationships they had made through the Manatee Chamber of Commerce were the most valuable takeaways from their previous participation.
They helped me put words to the feelings I had been experiencing. Relationships. The lobby had been full of real conversations and laughter. The people I was meeting were more interested in me as a person than they were in my job title. Most striking of all, the assembled group was more interested in how they could work together to make Manatee County an outstanding community #ForAllAges than they were in selling their products. This held true throughout the two-day conference. The content of the presentations was outstanding, with time built-in between sessions for relationship building. Breakout sessions were designed to encourage conversation and connections. I came in not knowing very many people and left feeling like part of the team working to make Manatee County the best it can be. That team feeling made me pay attention to which businesses were represented. In the future, I’m certain I will give my business to other members of the team and share their information with others.
It is easy to see why the Manatee Chamber of Commerce has won the National Chamber of the Year and the Florida Chamber of the Year award four times. Their tagline says it all, The Manatee Chamber of Commerce, Strengthening Your Business and our Community.